April 14, 2024

Bespoke brands ride the waves 

Cruise lines are creating own-label drinks that bring pizzazz, interest and ultimately sales onboard. Neal Baldwin explores the trend...

As major cruise lines look to differentiate their offer, they are turning away from big-name alcoholic brands in favour of exclusive partnerships with small producers. 

P&O Cruises is the undoubted leader in the field. Keen to cash in on a growing consumer trend towards drinks that offer something unusual, it made own-label alcohol an integral part of the PR story when unveiling its two newest ships. Both feature their own onboard distilleries, producing a unique gin and rum respectively.

Holland America Line’s bespoke lager

Visit the distillery

The move is a classic cruise industry tactic: create a fantastic marketing story that adds to the onboard pizzazz; offer guests something new to see and do while at sea, and drive opportunities for sales. Passengers can see the distillery in action as the small-scale stills are a shiny feature in the main bar of each ship. Guided tours explain the production process, while there are tasting sessions and cocktail-making lessons using the spirit too. As well as the spirits being available in multiple bars onboard, the exclusive Marabelle Gin and Golden Tide rum are retailed too. 

P&O Cruises makes a considerable effort to promote its ‘Britishness’ to guests so it chose to collaborate with small UK producers Salcombe Distilling Co. and Shorts Boy Distillery to create its unique gin and rum recipes. Paul Ludlow, President of P&O Cruises, says: “Our partnerships are based on a shared affinity with the sea, a commitment to sustainability and a passion for exclusively crafted drinks.” 

Holland America Line’s De Lijn gin      

Building affinity

Adding some onboard theatre is a good enough reason to drive the own-label bandwagon but P&O’s strategy is indicative of a wider trend for brands to build an affinity with customers by linking the ‘story’ of the drinks to the ships’ itineraries or the overall vacation experience. 

Jersey-based Shorts Boy Distillery worked with the cruise line to craft the own-label Caribbean-style dark rum, infusing it with seashore botanicals found in the UK, such as pepper dulse seaweed, to make it a good fit for Arvia’s Caribbean sailings. Likewise, Salcombe Distilling’s recipe for the Marabelle Gin includes heather and sea kelp from the Scottish isle of Iona. 

However, drinks industry expert Richard Dennis, Commercial Director at Watermill Wines, says there’s more to own-label alcohols than PR. “Making own-label products can really make sense financially,” he explains. “The retail partner, in this case the cruise lines, can take a slice from both sides of the equation. They work with producers to create a marketable story, but also benefit by squeezing the unit price. As retailer, they can set their own margins and can decide to undercut well-known brands to sell more onboard, or sell at a premium price as a bespoke product. They are  ideally placed to promote it onboard,” he adds.

Financial benefits

With the financials stacking up, it is no surprise others have followed suit. Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) unveiled its new premium ‘66 by Norwegian drinks range in October 2022 with an own-label gin on its newest ship, quickly followed by a ‘66 Pilsner in January this year. The move is part of a strategy to eventually offer a full suite of sustainably produced own-brand products across its 18-ship fleet. 

“We’ve got big plans for our ’66 range and want to make sure every guest is able to enjoy it, whatever ship they sail on,” says Wes Cort, NCL’s Vice President of Food and Beverage Operations. 

“We are adding ‘66 Bloody Mary in time for our new ship, Norwegian Viva, launching later this year, and we are working on a ‘66 prosecco product. Bloody Mary is amongst our most popular cocktails onboard, and we’ve partnered with Miami drinks brand Filthy, which is already creating waves in the sustainable beverage industry. Our values aligns well. For our ‘66 prosecco, we are partnering with Bottega.” 

Gin and pilsner

Holland America Line (HAL) launched its De Lijn gin to mark the company’s 150th anniversary in November 2022. “We wanted to produce a blend that not only captured our Dutch heritage but also used botanicals in a modern way to make it unique to our brand,” says Anthony Stice, HAL Vice President of Dining and Beverage Operations. “We call it a ‘Nieuw’ Western Gin, our take on the fast-growing New Western Dry Gin category; we selected a bright and floral profile, finishing it slightly over-proofed, ideal for mixing cocktails.”  

The move was quickly followed in January with HAL Pils, an exclusive lager from the Seattle-based Pike Brewing Company. The beer is available in bars across the fleet and retails in six-packs.

Onboard brewery tours

Elsewhere, Carnival Cruise Line is sticking to own-label beer, which sits well with its blue-collar American clientele. The giant US company was the first with an on-ship brewery, in 2016, aboard Carnival Vista and repeated the concept in 2018.  

The line employed its own brewmasters to create exclusive ales and in 2019 upped the game by partnering with Florida-based Brew Hub to mass-produce and can a range of the beers now served across all 23 ships and in retail. Six varieties are now available, ranging from a traditional wheat beer to a toasted amber ale. 

Carnival offers 90-minute brewery tours during sea days. It has extended its own label since 2019, creating a pre-mixed hard seltzer of vodka and fruit juice plus a pina colada. 

Meanwhile, Royal Caribbean has dipped a tentative toe in the own-label world, though its Chilla Thrilla tropical ale. The mango and guava brew, produced with Florida brewer and pub chain Funky Buddha, is served in cans exclusively to guests during calls at the cruise line’s CocoCay private island in the Bahamas. 

But as palates become more discerning, brands only have to look to Princess Cruises to see the potential pitfalls of own-label products. The company’s Seawitch West Coast IPA was introduced to mark the line’s 50th anniversary in November 2014 in partnership with San Jose’s Strike Brewing Company with a promise that it would be available across the fleet. Mixed reviews and sketchy availability meant the product was quietly shelved two years later. 

As industry expert Richard Dennis explains: “It’s no surprise that beers and spirits are most popular for cruise line own-label, because these are the two categories that have really been able to promote their artisan credentials to consumers more generally. Wine producers haven’t been able to tap into that as yet. The key to success is picking a producer that is relevant to your brand, has a story, and – most importantly – makes something worth drinking.”